New Dimensions for American Democracy
At long last, a protracted and often fierce election campaign is over. America has selected its new president. We congratulate Barack Obama, and we pledge our support for his efforts!
President-elect Obama will face awesome problems left over from the Bush administration. But let us focus on the positive. Obama is the first person of mixed Anglo-African parentage to attain the presidency. Heroically, he represents a significant extension of the scope of American democracy. His election reminds us that the United States really is the universal society on this planet and reconfirms America’s identity as a truly (if not yet perfectly) multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural nation. Bravo!
The United States is the first major country founded under the ideals of the Enlightenment, committed to the secular values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” America is a land of opportunity and individual achievement; its civic faith in progress, education, science, humanism, and democratic values is well justified.
Yet it comes at a price. Almost a century was required to overcome the moral blot of slavery. It has taken another century and a third since the Civil War to make the nation significantly more inclusive. America has elected a biracial president; had the Democratic primaries turned out differently, the nation would most likely have elected a woman. How long will it take before an open nonbeliever can be elected to high office? The U.S. Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required” to hold “any office or public trust.” Yet surveys still show that a majority of Americans would not vote for an atheist candidate for president. Clearly there is more work to be done to realize a truly secular society.
In order that the ideals of democracy may be extended further, we offer some basic, humanistic ethical principles and goals that we hope the nation can achieve in the coming years. Even as they confront an economic crisis of massive proportions, we call on President Obama and the new Congress to base their actions on the following principles:
- Renewal of regulation for the protection of the public. The unlimited free market has been discredited. Virtually every other democratic society displays a mixed economy with robust public and private sectors. America needs to learn from this example.
- Universal health care. We view health care as a human right. Every major democracy except the United States has universal health care. While preserving a significant private component, it is time to enact legislation that ensures that every American is covered.
- The right to privacy. Every person should have the personal freedom to pursue his or her values and style of life, so long as he or she does not prohibit others from exercising like rights
- Equal access. Every person, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or class, should have the opportunity to realize his or her goals without being hampered by discrimination.
- Equality of concern. All individuals should (a) be considered as equal before the law; (b) have the same right to education, whether poor or rich; and (c) enjoy the opportunity to pursue gainful employment.
- Civil liberties. In a free and open democratic society, any effort to censor or restrict free expression must be impermissible. This encompasses the right of each individual to believe in and practice a chosen religion—but also the right of dissent and nonbelief.
- Separation of church and state. The United States needs to adhere to the First Amendment. We call upon President Obama to rise above his campaign rhetoric on this issue and end public support for faith-based charities as a violation of the First Amendment.
- Commitment to developing alternative energy sources. We need to refocus national policy based on an energy mantra that exhorts us to go green, green, green! in place of drill, drill, drill.
- Restoring respect for U.S. leadership in world affairs. The war in Iraq needs to be resolved by the new administration as soon as possible. Ideally, this should include some form of truth commission that would investigate key members of the previous administration for their roles in taking the nation to war on false pretenses, establishing an illegal doctrine of preemptive warfare, and instituting such repellent practices as torture and indefinite detention. America should refocus its foreign policy and commit to using first diplomacy rather than military force as it seeks to resolve conflicts peacefully in cooperation with others in the world.
Finally, we recommend two reforms of the electoral system.
First, the election just concluded consumed two years, tremendous energy, and unprecedented levels of funding. We recommend that a special commission be appointed by the president in consultation with Congress to move beyond the grueling state-by-state primary system, perhaps to regional primaries and a shortened electoral process.
Second, we recommend that vice-presidential candidates be selected by regional primaries and political conventions, not simply chosen by the presidential nominee. Three twentieth-century presidents died in office (William McKinley, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy) and were succeeded by their vice presidents. Although we think that Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden was a sensible choice, John McCain’s selection of the unqualified Sarah Palin was not. Clearly the present process is insufficient. In our view, the vice president should be selected by the public through the primary process rather than being the sole and autocratic choice of the candidate. Let the people decide!